Directed by: Dani de la Torre || Produced by: Emma Lustres, Mercedes Gamero
Screenplay by: Patxi Amezcua || Starring: Luis Tosar, Michelle Jenner, Vicente Romero, Manolo Solo, Paco Tous, Jaime Lorente, Adriana Torrebejano, Ernesto Alterio
Music by: Xavier Font, Manuel Riveiro || Cinematography: Josu Inchaustegui || Edited by: Jorge Coira || Country: Spain, France || Language: Spanish
Running Time: 126 minutes
The first film I saw at a college movie theatre and maybe the first European period drama I ever watched was the self-important, longwinded (137-minute), and conceited Outside the Law (2010; Hors-la-loi in French) by French-Algerian filmmaker Rachid Bouchareb. Not only did it realize my interest in university arthouse theatrical exhibition (the campus theatres were cool even if I didn’t respect that particular film), it helped encourage my exploration of international cinema once I realized how much genre film existed overseas that matched my genre preferences in Stateside filmmaking. “Foreign” films weren’t just artsy-fartsy dramas and boring, dull awards-bait; you could find science-fiction, action, fantasy-adventure, and yes, crime dramas inspired by Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972, 1974, 1990) across all sorts of regional cinema.
Similar in tone, visual style, and gravitas but somewhat better in execution than Outside the Law (OTL) is the 2018 Spanish production, Gun City (titled La Sombre de La Ley = “The Shadow of the Law” in English), distributed internationally by Netflix. The film is a crime drama set in 1921 Barcelona during the later years of the Bourbon Restoration (1874-1931), a period when military leaders restored the Spanish monarchy under Alfonso XII and later Alfonso XIII as the diminished Spanish Empire lost the last of its major overseas colonies in the Americas and Oceania, failed their attempted conquests of Morocco, and its economy stagnated even despite their neutrality during the First World War (1914-1917). Social unrest at this time brewed proletariat discontent as well as violent union-busting tactics in response to potential national anarchy, all of which were a prelude to the seven-year (1923-1930) military dictatorship of General Primo de Rivera.
The setting of Gun City is a sociopolitical powder keg whose story is incited by the robbery of substantial weaponry from a military train by forces unknown, and thereafter federal agent and protagonist Luis Tosar is commissioned by the monarchy to assist the Barcelona police in maintaining social order. As his local Barcelona law enforcement colleagues adopt increasingly harsher methods (re: police brutality, extrajudicial executions) in their investigations, Tosar is forced to use various confidential informants and build relationships with different civilian factions (e.g. radical union anarchists, shady private business owners, organized crime syndicates) to prevent civil war and a preemptive military coup.
That’s quite the colorful backdrop for a period crime drama, but as I always argue, the artistic merit of a film’s story is determined through its execution. How does Gun City fare? It works a great deal better than the heavy-handed, slow OTL, as Tosar’s stoic, gruff detective is a workable main character and has decent chemistry with costars Paco Tous as a union boss, Michelle Jenner as Tous’ feminist daughter and female lead, and Vicente Romero as Tosar’s primary police contact and rival. In terms of direction, Dani de la Torre uses a variety of camerawork, noir-ish lighting setups, and a strong command of tone to paint an interesting portrait of a city with a specific, identifiable period flavor a la interwar Birmingham from Peaky Blinders (2013-2022) or 1950s Los Angeles from LA Confidential (1997). Actors are always blocked in striking arrangements in the frame and give a range of realistic, relatable performances. With respect to mise-en-scène, Gun City is powerful minus a handful of digital establishing shots and composite backgrounds that stick out like a sore thumb; an extravagant yet shady nightclub, an expansive, bustling police station, a dirty, grungy manufacturing plant, and various rural farmhouses on the outskirts of Barcelona are convincing and feel lived-in. Diegetically and in terms of characterizations, Gun City comes out swinging.
The film runs into problems with its greater narrative’s feature format, as well as how it balances its large ensemble cast. For the first two acts, I was on board with de la Torre’s stylish direction, his portrayal of a conflicted Roaring Twenties vision of Catalonia, but deep into the final act I realized the movie was going to struggle tying its story together and might not complete all character arcs satisfactorily. The film’s pace accelerates in a manner that doesn’t feel earned, the explosive nightclub finale, while well shot, feels like it comes out of nowhere, and the inciting incident’s train robbery devolves more or less into a forgettable MacGuffin whose impact on the setting seems negligible. I almost threw up my hands in exasperation as the film ended when Tosar’s protagonist vanished from the final set-piece like ninja, and then the film wrapped with a paragraph of on-screen text that explained the narrative’s subsequent historical fallout, which made the entire story feel kind of pointless.
Gun City’s accelerated pacing, messy finale, and the underdevelopment of supporting characters like Adriana Torrebejano’s showgirl indicate this project would’ve functioned better as a limited series. Yes, some miniseries projects like The Longest Night (2021-) or Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022-) have the opposite problem, where they are feature-length stories artificially stretched to fill time, but de la Torre’s project as is begs for a 3-5 hour runtime to better allow its historical diegesis to breathe.
In the end, Gun City is a difficult film to recommend given how it can’t stick the landing and how most historical references will go over most non-Spaniard’s heads. Production value-wise and in terms of characterizations, it’s quite strong, so most crime drama aficionados or Western European history buffs should get something of cinematic value from this, but other audiences will be left in the cold. It’s not quite as limited, impersonable, or tone-deaf as Rachid Bouchareb’s Outside the Law, where the only entertainment value you get from that movie are sloppy Godfather references and generic revolutionary cliches, but its overall structure remains too inconsistent to push on general audiences.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Gritty, charismatic, and with enough cinematographic variety to catch the eye of film buffs, Gun City showcases the immersive qualities of a detailed, carefully constructed historical backdrop, which is often equal if not superior to most Hollywood computer generated spectacle. Star Luis Tosar and his supporting cast are memorable guides through this tense, intricate social unrest.
— However… Dani de la Torre’s Barcelona adventure truncates itself just when the roller coaster is building steam the fastest, and a few supporting roles bear the brunt of its slapdash ending. This feels like a miniseries compacted to feature-length a la Public Enemies (2009).
—> ON THE FENCE
? Federal agents always feel cooler than local law enforcement.
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